Bhog.. the word conjures up a vision of steaming khichuri, crispy bhajas, spicy ghanta or labda, tomato chutney, payesh and if you’re lucky mishti and paan too. This sumptuous thali (or thermocol plate) meal is served during Durga puja at every community and family puja.
The seven-course lunch is the prasad that comes with Ma’s blessings and is an integral part of the saptami (seventh), ashtami (eighth) and navami (ninth) celebrations. It is dished out to all visitors irrespective of caste, class, creed, community or colour. The rationale behind the communal feasting is that the goddess makes no distinctions between her children during her annual visit to the earth.
Yesterday once more
When I was growing up, I remember the impatience with which we waited for bodhon and mahashashti puja when the clay idols would come to life.
The next morning, nine trees which included a banana sapling, were bathed on the banks of a river or pond as part of the nabo patrika snan and then brought into the home and placed (stapana) next to the idol of Ganesh as his bride Kola bou.
Serve and savour
After this the ritualistic saptami puja started and ended with pushpanjali when devotees invoked the blessings of the godly beings. Then came the annabhog which was later distributed as prasad.
In my family home, the bhog besides khichdi also included steamed white rice. The first course was vegetables — saag bhaja (a leafy vegetable), shukto, chochori or ghanta (a vegetable mix) — and daal. There were plenty of fries—brinjal, potato, cauliflower, pumpkin—and different kinds of sabzis of mocha (plantain flower), cauliflower and cabbage.
Maach of course, was a must. The variety of fish would depend on the freshest catch of the day. There was mangsho (mutton) as well. In the olden days, small goats were sacrificed on all three days and the tender meat cooked without onion or garlic.
A Bengali meal is never complete without dessert so the guests from the other world too were appeased with mishti doi, payesh (rice pudding) and different kinds of sandesh and rosogolla. The paan at the end was a much-needed digestive. The evening meal on all three days was luchis (puris), bhaja and different kinds of sweets.
On Navami we had an extra dish.. maurula macher ambal (fish chutney) and shuli patar shkuta (a mixed vegetable with a sprinkling of bitter leaves). This was the day of the Kumari pujo when nine virginal girls who were the nine incarnations of Durga had their feet washed and received offerings of clothes and gifts. In Ram Krishna Missions across the country though, the Kumari puja is performed on ashtami and draws crowds of devotees.
In some families, the bhogs were even more elaborate. At my sister-in-law’s ancestral home, they still serve a 30-course meal that includes everything from paneer and chingri malai curry to khaja and goja (different varieties of sweet).
Dashami was the day of mourning as Ma Durga returned to Kailash symbolised by the visarjan (immersion of the idols). The days of feasting were over. All we got on the tenth day was panta bhat (day old rice) and mouruli macher ambal. There was also dodhi korma, (a mix of curds, poha, khoi, murki, batasha and sandesh). Today, some of the community pujas celebrate Ma’s departure with a bhog of pulao and payesh.
Times have changed. But the bhog hasn’t lost its magic.